An Inauguration Day memo instructing employees of the Department of Health and Human Services not to communicate about regulatory policy with members of Congress has triggered fresh accusations that the Trump administration is trying to censor federal employees.
Representatives Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) wrote the White House on Thursday asking President Trump to make it clear that federal employees have an unrestricted ability to communicate with lawmakers.
They said the HHS memo, along with others sent in recent days by other agencies, “appear to violate multiple federal laws,” including one that protects federal whistleblowers.
“We request that the President issue an official statement making clear to all federal employees that they have the right to communicate with members of Congress and that he and his Administration will not silence or retaliate against whistleblowers,” the two Democrats wrote in a letter to White House Counsel Donald McGahn II.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. At HHS, however, a subsequent clarification of the memo told agency employees that the directive should not be interpreted “in any way that would preclude or in any way interfere with HHS staff addressing their concerns to their elected representatives in person or in writing.”
A senior HHS communications adviser said the department “continues the process of communicating on a daily basis. They have also been very responsive in reviewing policy related communications to ensure they reflect the policies of the new administration.”
The Interior Department ordered a shutdown of all its Twitter accounts after the National Park Service retweeted photos showing a substantially smaller crowd at Trump’s swearing-in last Friday than had attended former president Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Trump expressed anger about the tweets in a phone call the next day to the Park Service’s acting director. The department’s Twitter account was subsequently restored, but only after the Park Service deleted the offending tweets.
In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency and Agriculture Department issued formal policies limiting what staff should convey to the public about their work. The latter agency has since reversed that.
The HHS memo was particularly galling to Cummings and Pallone, according to their aides, because they learned about it from HHS staffers who balked at providing information requested by their committees. The congressmen’s offices said employees at the Food and Drug Administration, which is part of HHS, cited the directive when they canceled meetings with congressional staff.
The memo appears to have been written as part of a more traditional presidential transition effort to freeze rulemaking by federal agencies until the new administration’s officials have a chance to review new rules.
However, the HHS memo from Acting Secretary Norris Cochran went further than the typical transition instruction and the restrictions issued by other federal agencies. It told employees that “no correspondence to public officials (e.g. Members of Congress, Governors) or containing interpretations or statements of Department regulations or policy, unless specifically authorized by me or my designee, shall be sent between now and February 3, during which time you will have the opportunity to brief President Trump’s appointees and designees on any such correspondence which might be issued.”
Cummings and Pallone complained that the memo violated the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act “because they do not include a mandatory statement that employee communications with Congress and Inspectors General are protected.” The act, passed by Congress unanimously in 2012, prohibits agencies from implementing or enforcing “any nondisclosure policy, form, or agreement” that does not include the mandatory statement.
In their letter, the two lawmakers also cited an apparent violations of other laws, including a 1912 statute designed to protect the rights of federal employees to freely “furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member.”
The memos from HHS and other agencies, they said, create “the impression that the Trump Administration intends to muzzle whistleblowers.”
At the White House this week, press secretary Sean Spicer said that the administration had not asked any agency to impose new restrictions on communications.